On Beggar's Banquet the Stones try to come to terms with violence more explicitly than before and in so doing are forced to take up the subject of politics. The result is the most sophisticated and meaningful statement we can expect to hear concerning the two themes — violence and politics — that will probably dominate the rock of 1969.
Politics has not been fashionable since Dylan left it among musicians. There have always been the few hold-outs left over from the folk music period, but despite the mass media's continually mistaken references to rock and roll as "protest music," rock musicians have done remarkably little protesting. Protest is a hallmark of the liberal. It is an appeal to the conscience of the majority to remedy some injustice being done to the minority. It presupposes a belief that meaningful change can be worked out within the system. Rock and roll musicians, for the most part, don't buy that. They don't take things like government seriously unless they are forced to. They find the whole political process something worthy of contempt.
Protest singers in the past were most often ideologues who set pallid verse to semi-musical melodies. The idea that it is the music that should convey the brunt of their meaning never occurred to them. There were words and there were notes but there wasn't any music.
The people who are turning to political themes in their music now are different. They don't do it a as luxury, or for moral reasons. They are doing it because it is part of their lives and they have to express themselves in terms of how what is happening in the streets is affecting their lives.
Personal feelings are becoming increasingly related to political ones and political problems are becoming inextricably bound up with personal ones. In the United States the band which has best come to terms with these connections is the MC 5. That band isn't protesting anything. They are giving orders: "Kick out the jams, motherfucker." They are offering advice. "It's time to get down with it, brother." And they are asking questions: "Are you going to be the problem or the solution?" Their idea of politics includes balling, dope, eating, drinking, fighting, and music.
The 5 are young and they are seeking youthful ways to express their feelings. The Stones are a bit older, have been through a lot more, are far better musicians, and are more sanguine about their roles. But in the larger sense they are part of the same thing: there is no way they can separate themselves as human beings from what is going on "out there." It isn't a question of feeling sorry for people in India, as Paul McCartney seems to think. The point is that the things that keep those people in a state of near starvation are the same ones that may force John to take a drug rap, that almost sent Brian Jones to jail, and which has forced Elridge Clever into hiding. Sooner or later, something brings that home to each of us.
Beggar's Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn't advocate anything. It is a reflection of what goes on at the Stones house, with a few pictures of the house itself thrown in for good measure. Part of what that house looks like has to do with what it's surrounded by and the most startling songs on the album are the ones that deal with the Stones environment: "Salt of the Earth," "Street Fighting Man," and "Sympathy for the Devil." Each is characterized lyrically by a schizoid ambiguity. The Stones are cognizant of the explosions of youthful energy that are going on all around them. They recognize the violence inherent in these struggles. They see them as movements for fundamental change and are deeply sympathetic. Yet they are too cynical to really go along themselves. After all, they are rock and roll musicians, not politicians, and London is such a "sleepy town."
They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now. From the beginning they themselves have been exponents of emotional violence and it's hard to imagine any group more suited to voicing the feelings of discontent we all share in these most violent of times. Wherever they wind up themselves, they are writing songs of revolution because they are giving powerful expression to the feelings that are causing it.
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